July 09, 2009

Judging from the enormous number of airline complaints, customer service has not been the top priority for most airlines of late. Indeed, the same could be said for most companies. Whenever the bottom line is being reviewed, customer service is always one of the easiest sectors to cut back. After all, the sale has already been made. As to the classic question of customers going elsewhere: of course they will ... but is "elsewhere" really any different? In the absence of brand loyalty, service industries increasingly rely on a fixed level of need, pinballing among a limited set of options more alike than different.

(I speak not of what could be or should be, but of what is.)

Customer service is the polar opposite to advertising, which is in a constant escalating arms race. The only way the marketing department ever gets chopped is as a result of a particularly disastrous campaign (New Coke!): and even then this actually means that the advertising budget must increase to compensate.

From the corporate pov, the job of the customer service department is not to provide customer service, but to stall the customer into submission without once admitting fault. It sounds like an oxymoron. However, when dealing with customers as a pool rather than as individuals, the customer flow-through pool is best optimised by depersonalising the customer and never once accepting responsibility. For exactly this reason, customer service employees are usually stripped of all real power.

Every so often, someone who has a voice and knows how to use the media strikes back.

The Sons of Maxwell were on a tour of the United States when band member Dave Carroll's beloved Taylor guitar was seriously damaged by United Airlines baggage handlers. For nine months he tried to get compensation, but instead got shuffled from one department to another. Although no one denied the experience occurred, not one person to whom he spoke would admit fault.

He gave up on talking. Instead, he made a video. It went viral -- and suddenly United Airlines was talking, was accepting responsibility, was even apologising:
This has struck a chord w/ us. We have spoken w/ one another to make what happened right. We agree, this should have been fixed much sooner & Dave's excellent video provides us w/ a unique learning opp. that we wud like to use 4 training.

Dave can sing a happy´╗┐ tune. As asked, we made a donation to a charity. In his name, United will donate $3K to the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, for music ed. for kids. Cant wait 2 make music w/ Dave 2 improve service 4 all. Most important, very sorry.

- uniteditstimetofly
Ten thousand comments later of the kind of publicity no company ever wants to see gathered in one place, United Airlines was apologising; and Dave accepted. Was it a win, or simply the least costly out? Will anything of significance change for other people in future?

I can't speak for the recent state of airlines myself: but then again I have generally managed to avoid customer service desks entirely. For one thing, I don't buy much. For another, I deal primarily with individuals, rather than with businesses per se. I try for a measure of personal contact with the front line people with whom I deal, be it even so little as eye contact and a genuine "thank you". For a third, if I have to point out mistakes, such as those at the cash register, I find a neutral reason for those mistakes, such as a misprogramming in the scanner (which is usually actually the case!). And finally, if I am at fault or asking a great deal, I say so at once. In these cases, my request is a request with understanding for what I am asking, never a demand.

For some reason, I always seem to end up with the people who go beyond their strict job descriptions to help me.

... but none of this would have saved Carroll's guitar.

Edit: the uniteditstimetofly comment came between 9,700 and 9,900, if anyone wants to track it down exactly. I could not figure out how to link it directly then, and I am having a heck of a time trying to do so now. If you do succeed, a direct link would be appreciated. -T

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